In a world where anyone can cast a life-destroying curse, only one person has the power to unravel them.
Kellen does not fully understand his unique gift, but helps those who are cursed, like his friend Nettle who was trapped in the body of a bird for years. She is now Kellen’s constant companion and his closest ally.
But the Unraveller carries a curse himself and, unless he and Nettle can remove it, Kellen is a danger to everything – and everyone – around him . . .
Many thanks to NetGalley, Frances Hardinge and MacMillan for an ARC of this novel.
What would you do if you could hate someone enough to curse them and transform them into something other? Would your enemy turn into a tree that you could fell and cut and use as timber in a ship? Would they turn into a worm that you could use as bait for your fishing time and time again? Would you transform them into a bird, a heron, a hawk, a dove perhaps? And how would it feel to be transformed back into a person again? How much of the true you would survive?
This is the central motif of Frances Hardinge’s new novel: Raddith is a land that contains The Wilds and it is from The Wilds that this cursing power or phenomenon comes. Along with a wealth of eldritch creatures, mysterious rituals and Midnight Markets, Little Brothers and Bookbearers and Dancing Stars. The Wilds is a place that defies the limitation of human knowledge, understanding or physics: whilst they appear from outside to be “a meagre band of damp greyish woodland only a few miles deep”, it is bigger – vaster – on the inside and
if you are rash enough to venture down among the trees, you will discover your error quickly. The innocent appearance of the Wilds is a lie. The marsh-woods are every bit as strange, vast and perilous as the stories say.
It is no secret and no surprise to my friends, colleagues, family and readers of this blog that I love Frances Hardinge’s novels – from the historical Cuckoo Song and The Lie Tree to the fantastical Deeplight and A Face Like Glass – and her world building is extraordinary here, even by her standard! Her opening chapter addresses us directly as if we were a foreign visitor to Raddith, and the duality between the Chancery-controlled human world and The Wilds is exquisite. We hear the rumours and stories before we are introduced to the real horrors of those Wilds.
Hardinge’s main characters are Kellen – the eponymous unraveller of curses – and the previously-cursed Nettle, youths little more than children who eke a living out of the unravelling Kellen can do. Unfortunately, his ability to unravel curses extends to the more literal tendency to unravel fabric around him which, combined with both a hot-headedness and a miscievousness, lead to all sorts of trouble.
It is with one spot of such trouble that the book opens and as a result of which Kellen and Nettle are incarcerated until released on the orders of a mysterious one-eyed stranger named Gall, a man who had sacrificed an eye – and possibly more – to bond with a Deep Wilds marsh horse, a terrifying carnivorous, dangerous creature that seemed to bear the appearance of a horse but not much else equine.
What Gall does is introduce Kellen and Nettle to a wider narrative: apprehended cursers have been going missing and everyone knows that a curser always curses again so missing cursers become a matter of concern to those at the highest levels of power. These cursers are, essentially, a weapon of mass destruction.
In fact, this is one of the most thoughtful responses to the concept of crime and criminality that I have read. The fate of the cursers apprehended by Kellen is appalling:
We lock them away for years in windowless rooms in chains and iron helmets.
And this is fate of those who have not just cursed and therefore caused irreparable harm to someone else, but also to those in whom the ability to curse is detected even before they have unleashed it. How should a society deal with those capable and predisposed to violence? In our real world where authorities may believe themselves capable of identifying potential terrorists and extremists and their sympathisers through racial profiling and social media flags, how should we deal with those characters who are in fact still innocent?
And what about the flip side? How should we deal with those who have suffered at the hands of others? The curse victims in this novel – and there are many that we encounter – are scarred and changed by their experiences, sometimes physically and always emotionally. The novel really challenges us to consider how life-changing experiences can be managed and supported when those experiences shatter our very ability to trust others.
After all, can we ever trust those things that “everyone knows”?
Through the course of their journey, Kellen and Nettle visit a range of curse victims and rescue them. It does make the narrative a little episodic and certainly some of those rescues, however wonderfully written they were, did not necessarily advance the plot or character development. I did love the way that Kellen unravelled them, usually seeking an understanding and an empathy with both curser and victim and encouraging them to accept a new truth themselves – that perhaps their loved ones might be the very curser who transformed them and turned their lives into a nightmare.
Hardinge’s language is, as always, gorgeous and sensory especially when describing the weird and otherness of her world. Kellen’s talent is described in language which is redolent with metaphor and imagery, extending and deepening the metaphor of the unravelling and fabric deliciously. The flashback of how he acquired his power from a Little Brother in a tumult of fabric destruction was exceptional and energetic and just brilliant.
I also adored Gall! Terrifying certainly at times, eldritch in his bond to the marsh horse, wholly human in his difficult but very real love for his husband. Hardinge gave us just enough humanity in him to see him caught between her two worlds, bound to the Wilds but loving a human. In fact this being caught between two worlds felt central to the novel too: is it a coincidence that the Wilds themselves are in a marsh, neither quite land nor yet sea?
Whilst for me, Cuckoo Song will always be my favourite Hardinge novels, this explored the same territory and, as a novel, reaches those same heights. However deeply embedded in the fairytale and the other, Hardinge created characters who are ultimately utterly human and convincing.
A fantastic read!
What I Liked
- The humanity and depth given to Kellen, Nettle, Gall and the other characters.
- The exceptional world building of the Wilds, mysterious, eldritch and deeply other.
- The quiet representation of a gay marriage where the love between the two men was a key plot point.
- Hardinge’s wonderful evocative language.
What Could Have Been Different
- … I genuinely cannot think of anything I would change here – and that is unusual for me! Perhaps for it to feel a little less episodic?